How to Survive Christmas: Rule #5736
Do not go to midnight Mass on Christmas! Especially if you are halfway glad about the feast for once! Do not go to midnight Mass, that is, unless you know if there is going to be a sermon—the last (well, maybe not the very last) place a sermon is appropriate is midnight Mass, the shepherds' Mass—who is going to preach it, who the choir is going to be (especially if the music standard is ordinarily high), what they are going to sing, and who the organist will be.
Against my own gut instinct and the advice of a wise friend, I went. I suppose I went because last year I was in a village that really knows how to keep Christmas Eve and do joyful and formal liturgy that enhances the silence; and I went, I suppose, with that in mind. I'd also heard Kings. Twice. I should have stayed home and listened to Radio 3. It was a HUGE mistake to have gone—I won't say where I went. Suffice it to say that it was a 'downtown' church; and since its regular congregation is from the villages, it was a bit of a surprise to see so many people there, though they were mostly tourists, and the place was not full by any means. The liturgy (which hardly deserved the name) was so bad that if I had not been sitting in the stall nearest the altar I would have left. I wish I had, but I couldn't bear to add to the disruption.
I should have been warned at the beginning. All the lights were on. The congregation was yakking. Then when the organ began, it was some appalling, loud, blatting, dissonant variations on a modern carol, played at full blast on the nazard alone, which, in that piece, was absolutely horrible, like someone running a metal file back and forth through your brain. The first hymn was to be sung solo by the choir, always a bad sign. And when they started making their noise, I cringed back into my stall as we were assaulted by a shrieking tremolo soprano, another with a vibrato so wide you could drive an HGV through it; a strangled tenor....and to make matters worse, it was as if this was the very first time they and the organist had been turned loose in a large building: everything was sung with braggadocio; they were clearly so pleased with their own tuneless voices, bawling double forte, the sopranos, especially, pushing their high notes, all of them, the way a streetwalker might advertise her décolletage, and the organ was DEAFENING. The service music they punished us with was bombastic, inappropriate at any time, but devastating at midnight Mass. I can't begin to describe how dreadful it was—as were the florid—excessive to the point of Victorian nausea—carol arrangements they inflicted on us during communion. The last straw was that the already middle-voice congregational carols were pitched at least a step lower than written, leaving us in the tessitura called no-man-or-woman's-land. So there wasn't any real singing but rather an sort of monotonic drone.
There was not one single moment of silence during the entire two-hour travesty.
Then, if course, for the readings they used the hamfisted and sterile NRSV Anglicised version—this night, above all nights, is about behold of which there was not a single occurrence in that translation, whereas the original languages are littered with hinneh and idou—and the event that had me nearly wailing in agony, ready to commit seppuku on the pricket, was that the clergyperson who got up to preach was the one who on sight alone makes me lose the will to live. The sad little inanities slid off the scroll one by one, dribbled cliché following drools of platitudes, delivered in the most patronising, unctuous, slightly accusative tone of voice.
The whole thing was absolutely ghastly, relieved only by the twinkle in the rolling eye of the clergyperson (an old, old friend) who gave me the chalice, as if he knew what agonies I was suffering, to which I managed to respond with a very crooked smile; followed by an exchange of silent Christmas greetings across the nave with a verger, ditto.
Good religion is simple; it requires two elements only: mystery, which entails silence towards which the liturgy should point, and beauty in all its forms: architecture, music, language, movement—not some fixed idea of an aesthetic, for the greatest beauty often shines through the least expected people and events. Midnight Mass last night managed to eliminate every single one of these elements. Evidently I was not the only person to feel this way: the man beside me was restive throughout, and the congregation wasted no time at all in heading for the doors long before the clergy were in place at the west end.
It was a mercy to walk the mile home through nearly-deserted streets and, as I turned down my road, to glimpse the moon with bright Jupiter close by in a patch of clear sky, a rare sight given all the deluges we have had, with more forecast to come.
My mood was not helped by the fact that the deeper my research penetrates, the more it exposes the unrelenting destructiveness of those who formed the institution in the earliest days, people who demonstrably knew better, willing to twist the truth to serve institutional power, while ruthlessly sacrificing the lives of believers, and anathematizing any opposition. As they still do.
An idle Christmas thought that has been sloshing around the back of my mind (or what's left of it) in an inchoate way has been that each of us is all of the people in the narrative: we are the shepherds, we are Mary; we are sometimes the Roman soldiers as well as the Angel of the Annunciation—but, dear heaven, after this midnight Mass just past, we are also the Innocents, seeking light in the darkness, believing the promises, hoping against hope for light that will support and guide us, but instead being slaughtered by the corrupt and corrupting Herodian system that cannot, and, more important and culpable, will not behold.